By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Jan. 9, 2020
Molly Van Benthuysen received polite applause for the baton twirling routine she performed at halftime of the Moravia High School girls’ basketball game in the winter of 1967.
But the fifth-grader really noticed the roar of the crowd when the Mohawkettes took the floor for the second half.
It seemed to young Molly as if all 700 souls in Moravia attended the game, every made shot brought the crowd to its feet, and each rebound and pass brought shouts of encouragement to the girls.
“When it was over, I knew I had to do this,” Molly Van Benthuysen, now Kazmer, said. “I had to play basketball.”
Molly Bolin grew up in a magical age when six-on-six girls’ basketball ruled Iowa winters. The 2019-20 season marks the 25th without the six-player game and a time when the last of its stars are reaching their mid-40s.
Kazmer, now 62, is working to preserve the history of these early women’s pro pioneers.
When the game was at its peak, stars like Kazmer — her married name at the time was Molly Bolin — were household names. She would grow up to be one of the most prolific scorers in Iowa girls’ basketball, averaging nearly 55 points per game her senior year.
She eventually earned the name “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin. The nickname came from her rapid-fire jump shot that she could take and make from almost anywhere.
She signed the first contract for a pro league based in the United States, the Women’s Professional Basketball League, or WBL.
But pro basketball — with gyms devoid of fans, badly managed league finances and gender-based marketing — was a far cry from the hardcourt royalty she experienced in small-town Iowa.
The WPL folded after just three seasons. Kazmer endured a series of hardships, including a messy custody dispute over her first child.
All Molly, born Monna Lea, wanted to do was get out of the house.
She was the fifth of six children born to Wanda and Forrest Van Benthuysen.
Forrest Van Benthuysen was a pipeline worker, and the family went where his work was. The six children were born in four different states, and Molly came into the world in Ontario, Canada, in 1957.
The family settled in Moravia when Forrest Van Benthuysen got a job building the Lake Rathbun dam.
Money was tight. Four of the six kids were still at home. They worked at an aunt’s hog farm near Knoxville to earn money for school clothes.
They lived in a trailer near the railroad tracks abutting a church graveyard. They couldn’t afford to shop at the local grocery store, so they grew nearly all of their fruits and vegetables.
Kazmer’s father hunted game for meat.
Forrest Van Benthuysen started abusing alcohol after a truck crash. Sometimes he would fall down drunk in the middle of the day.
“People passed by and didn’t say a word,” Kazmer said.
His drunkenness mortified his wife. Kazmer said she felt ashamed.
Her father hit her mother, Kazmer said.
“One day, mom had enough and told him that if he did it again, he would never see her again,” Kazmer said. “He stopped. She stood up to him, but nobody got involved or helped us. Back then it wasn’t domestic abuse, it was ‘a family matter.’”
She sought refuge in 4-H, clarinet lessons and had a perfect attendance record at school. She took baton twirling lessons for 10 cents apiece.
“I would do anything to get out of the house,” she said.
The baton twirling money proved well-spent when it brought her to her first six-on-six girls’ basketball game as a fifth-grader.
Six-on-six divided the court into two halves. Each team put out three forwards, who scored, and three guard, who defended.
Rules allowed only two dribbles before a pass. When one team scored, the referees handed the ball to the other team’s forwards at half court to handle possession change.
The game was fast-paced and combined scores often tallied 200 points or more. In a time before cable TV, the internet and telephones in our pockets, Iowans packed gyms.
“Iowa was in the forefront of involving Iowa girls in athletics,” said Gary Ross, basketball administrator for the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. “It was what you did on a Tuesday or Friday night in the winter. It brought the community together.”
Molly Van Benthuysen wanted in on the action.
Kazmer’s next-door neighbor coached the junior high team. He had an outdoor hoop. He worked with her on shooting.
She hefted shots without regard for rain, snow, wind or heatwave. Molly shot.
She played against boys who took losing against a girl poorly. One regular opponent threw the ball as hard as he could down the street after every loss. Kazmer had to go get it.
Another boy twisted her arm behind her back so badly it injured her shoulder.
Still, she kept shooting.
The summer before she entered high school, her eighth-grade coach suggested Kazmer attend a summer camp run by Bob Spencer, then of the now-defunct Parsons College in Fairfield, to work on her basketball skills. The camp cost $75.
Money was still tight in the Van Benthuysen household. Kazmer ordered a greeting card sales kit from a magazine ad. She went door-to-door across Moravia and sold the cards for 50 cents or $1.
She raised $25, enough for the deposit. Her effort impressed Spencer, who allowed her to work off the remainder of the fee by serving food during mealtimes.
“Coach Spencer was the best coach I ever had,” she said. “He taught me about setting goals and discipline.”
She worked so hard in the camp, she got blisters on her feet, but the pain was Moravia’s gain.
Kazmer played only junior varsity as a freshman per coach’s edict. She joined the varsity team her sophomore year and played with another six-player legend: Fonda Dicks.
Dicks possessed a smooth jump shot that Kazmer sought to emulate. The pair combined to light up scoreboards.
Dicks scored 51 points and Kazmer added 32 in Moravia’s 103-90 loss to Colfax in January 1973. The rest of the team scored only seven.
Colfax denied Moravia a spot in the state tournament, ending the Mohawkettes’ season with a three-point loss in the regional final. Dicks scored 42; Kazmer had 23.
Moravia would never make the state tournament during Kazmer’s tenure, but the fans who filled the bleachers got a shooting display from Kazmer nearly every night.
She developed a 30-inch vertical leap. The hops pushed her 5-foot-9 frame above defenders and allowed her clear looks at the basket.
She scored 50 points 30 times in her high school career, including scoring 83 points against Leon in January 1975.
Missing the state tournament haunted her.
“Every time we lost, I was in a state of depression for weeks,” she said. “Every girl in the state wanted to make it to Des Moines for the state tournament.”
Kazmer eventually would make it to Des Moines, but as a college and pro star.
Title IX, the federal law that required schools to offer equal opportunities to men and women, went into effect in 1972, while Kazmer was in high school.
The NCAA didn’t sponsor women’s basketball until 1982.
But colleges played the traditional five-player game. Iowa’s six-on-six players struggled to get scholarship offers.
Kazmer chose Grand View College in Des Moines, now a university. The transition to the five-player game flummoxed her in her freshman year.
“I didn’t really know how to dribble down the court and make a layup,” she said.
Kazmer sat out her sophomore season, married her first husband and had her first child.
She returned to the court a year later and flourished. She learned to drive past defenders for layups as well as pop up for jump shots.
Kazmer averaged 24.6 points per game, including one 42-point performance.
She scored 1,000 points for Grand View in two seasons before graduating with an associate’s degree in telecommunication.
Kazmer played her first season at Grand View for Rod Lein. He left after her first year to start the women’s basketball program at Simpson College in Indianola. He invited Kazmer and other Vikings to join him. They declined.
But the next time Lein called, Kazmer listened.
Lein had been named coach of the Iowa Cornets, a women’s professional basketball team based in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
They wanted Kazmer to try out. She said yes.
Bill Byrne, a Columbus, Ohio, man, founded the Women’s Professional Basketball League, or WBL.
He previously oversaw player personnel for the Chicago Fire for the short-lived World Football League, and a men’s slow-pitch professional softball league.
Byrne believed the time had come for women’s pro basketball.
The WBL began with eight teams in 1978: Iowa Cornets, New Jersey Gems, Milwaukee Does, Chicago Hustle, Minnesota Fillies, Dayton Rockettes, New York Stars and Houston Angels.
The Cornets were owned by George Nissen, a gymnastics star from Cedar Rapids during the 1930s who won three NCAA titles for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
He invented the trampoline and promoted his own volleyball-style game called Spaceball.
Several top draftees — including Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State, Luisa Harris of Delta State and Soviet Union star Uljana Semjonova — bowed out of the league to retain amateur status then required to participate in the upcoming 1980 Olympic Games.
Molly Bolin, the girl who discovered basketball after baton twirling in fifth grade, became the first woman to sign a professional contract for a women’s basketball league based in the United States.
“I knew it was important, but I didn’t really think about how historic it was,” she said. “I just wanted to keep playing basketball and if I could get paid for it, that was great.”
Her first contract was for $6,000.
Kazmer and the Cornets were a success. She averaged 16.7 points per game her first season, still learning the five-player game. She surged for 53 points in one game and lead the Cornets to the league championship series against the Houston Angels.
The league was fraught with problems from the start. Paychecks bounced. Travel arrangements were shoddy.
The team bus — nicknamed “the Corn Dog,” and painted in team colors of green and gold — struggled to make it through snowstorms to get the players to games on time.
They slept four or six to a room on road trips to save money.
The Cornets played eight of its 16 home games in Des Moines and played others in Cedar Rapids and other communities, including Ottumwa, a half-hour drive from Kazmer’s hometown of Moravia.
To promote the Cornets, Nissen paid $1 million to finance a movie called, “Dribble,” also known as “Scoring,” a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that featured men’s and women’s teams squaring off in an Iowa gym.
Kazmer earned an extra $3,000 for a minor role in the film, which included “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the great Louisiana State and NBA star.
“It’s so terrible I don’t think they ever released it on video,” Kazmer said. “I got a copy from a friend whose relative was on a Navy ship. We watched and howled with laughter. It was so bad.”
Kazmer also became known for more than her basketball skills. Entering her second year in the league, the Cornets offered her a $500 raise.
She asked the team to pay for a photoshoot of her that would help promote the team. She could sell the posters and keep the profits.
The poster showed her in a sleeveless shirt and shorts. She sat on the ground in a pose that mimicked the famous 1970s swimsuit poster by Farrah Fawcett.
Another poster showed her in uniform with a satin jacket slung over her side and a basketball on her hip.
“I guess you could call them exploitative, but I don’t feel exploited because it was my idea,” she said. “I was an active participant.”
Kazmer cultivated her “blonde bombshell” sex appeal in hopes of drawing more fans to the game. It certainly drew more attention.
Some news reports referred to her as “Molly Dolly,” a handle she despised only because one of her sister’s names was Dolly.
An especially condescending profile in Sports Illustrated noted “that if beauty were a stat, Molly Bolin would be in the Hall of Fame.”
The posters were a success in the short term. They cost 50 cents to make and Kazmer sold them for $3. She sold out four printings. But they would be a problem for her later.
Kazmer picked up her most famous moniker from Washington Post reporter Thomas Boswell, who dubbed her “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin.
She scored with rat-ta-tat repetition and accuracy in the 1979-80 season. She averaged 32.8 points per game and scored 55 against Minnesota on March 2, 1980 — still a record for a player in an American women’s pro basketball game.
Kazmer scored 36 in the fourth and final game of the league finals, but again the Cornets fell short, this time to the New York Stars.
Financial troubles continued to plague the WBL. The Cornets folded after the 1979-80 season despite making the league finals both years. During a game in Chicago, the Minnesota team walked off the court in protest over unpaid salaries.
With the Cornets gone, Kazmer tried playing with the Ladies’ Professional Basketball Association. The league folded after a month. Kazmer caught on with one of the remaining WBL teams, the San Francisco Pioneers.
There she posed with a Thompson submachine gun on her thigh for a team promotion.
But the league was ultimately doomed by Cold War politics. Bill Byrne founded the league hoping the 1980 Olympics in Moscow would showcase the women’s game and inspire national interest.
President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The league folded after the 1980-81 season.
“We were ahead of our time by about 15 years,” Kazmer said.
The strain of travel took a toll on her first marriage, and she and her husband divorced in 1982.
Her ex-husband wanted their child to stay with him full-time in Moravia. Kazmer wanted her son to be with her part-time in California.
Iowa courts awarded her ex-husband full custody. Attorneys for her ex-husband argued Kazmer’s travel schedule for work and the posing for glamour shots to promote the Iowa Cornets made her an unfit mother.
Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Kazmer’s favor. She won custody in 1983.
Kazmer kept playing ball wherever she could. She played on a team of all-stars that challenged the woman’s team preparing for the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles.
Molly played another season of pro ball with the Columbus Minks as part of the first incarnation of the Women’s American Basketball Association.
She beat former Golden State Warriors star Rick Barry in a game of “horse.” She starred in a Spalding commercial and basketball training videos with Boston Celtics great Larry Bird.
But eventually, the opportunities ended.
Kazmer worked as a home renovator and house painter. She earned her real estate license. She remarried and had two more children.
Basketball always stayed with her.
She was inducted into the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Hall of Fame in 1986.
She worked with Fox Sports in 1995 in an effort to create a new women’s pro league. But the NBA soon founded the Woman’s National Basketball Association, which began play in summer 1997 and remains the longest-running women’s pro basketball league.
Kazmer and the rest of the WBL were inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as trailblazers. Kazmer continues to try to preserve the history of the WBL through her organization, Legends of the Ball.
“We didn’t last long, but what we did was important,” she said. “We need to collect the game tapes and radio broadcasts and photos. We need to remember who came first.”
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.